This scoping study compares two African LDCs that have invested in sugar cane-based modern bioenergy, 30 years apart: Malawi starting in 1980 and Sierra Leone starting in 2010.

Several African countries are investing significantly in modern bioenergy, thus diverging from the classical energy/industrialization paradigm of decreasing per capita consumption of biomass over time.

Energy security continues to be a major motivation, but there is an additional advantage of investing in agro-energy at an earlier stage in the economic development process: it creates an opportunity to contribute to a different type of agro-industrial development compared to the “dirty” pathway followed by developed countries.

Technical innovation is often required, but promoting technological innovation per se is costly for LDCs, and they can instead pursue innovative deployment of existing technologies and agro-industrial systems.

The large scale in energy and financial terms for small LDCs makes the Malawi and Sierra Leone cases much more than one-off projects: they provide a testing ground for new bioresource strategies and a more sustainable agro-industrial growth paradigm based on low-carbon development.

A novel feature of this comparison is to capture temporal dynamics, since one case study is based on 30-year historical development, whereas the other can essentially be analysed in real-time as the implementation phase gets under way.